Balance: The New Prescription for Optimal Aging

I know that most of you reading this entry have experienced something traumatic in your lives. Very few people get to be in their sixties without something “bad” happening to them. I have recently had another such setback. A little over a week ago I was working out in our Wellness Center when I suddenly couldn’t breathe after a set of exercises. Well actually, I could breathe, but I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs to support my heightened heart rate. I thought the workout had seemed unusually tough that day – up until that moment of breathlessness – but by the time I finally recovered enough air to walk out of the building and go home, I knew that something was seriously wrong.

Another Fucking Wake-up Call
After researching the symptoms and talking with my wife, we called and got an emergency appointment with my internal medicine doctor. He looked me over and promptly called an ambulance which took me to a local emergency room. The symptoms presented themselves as a heart attack – or at least one about to occur – so the ER testing was initially pointed in this direction. However, my wife told the ER doctor that my internist thought it could be either a heart episode or a “pulmonary embolism” – which is blood clots in the lungs. They did a simple blood test which is an indicator of pulmonary embolism and it proved positive, so they gave me a CT of the lungs. There they saw hundreds of tiny blood clots spread throughout my lungs and chest. They went on to do an ultra sound of my legs and found that to be the origin of the blood clot – which had exploded into the large leg vein traveling to my lungs. The bottom line is that it was a miracle one or more of those blood clots didn’t clog a smaller vein going into the lungs, causing the lung tissue to die and me along with it.

I have had a tough life – physically. I felt compelled to play football and rugby as a young man and it left me with two knees stripped of their cartilage. Later on these injuries became the source of two knees and one hip replacement – along with what appears to be a permanently bad back. However, long before this in 1988, I came down with cancer and went through some of the most horrific chemotherapy treatments one can imagine. I have had about five years of peace and pretty good health lately, and now “WHAM” – I am hit with this latest physical karate chop, literally to the heart (or that general vicinity). And now, here I am trying to make sense out of the whole damned thing.

Do you Think the Universe is Trying to Tell me Something?
I know that worse things have happened to many of you out there, so I am not going to dwell upon my own physical experiences, but hopefully find a common cord among my readers around how all of these physical setbacks have affected my quality of life.

The answer to this question can only be determined if we look at the effect of “time.” In the past, after recovering from my physical setbacks, I have always gone through a period of intense psychological and spiritual growth. It just took a little time to get over the sheer pain of the experience before I could inquire into the reasons behind it. I find the creation of new self-awareness and personal development to be extremely rewarding, and this has always more than offset my physical aches and pains from an overall QOL viewpoint.

However, except for the cancer, none of my prior past health issues have jeopardized my life to a significant degree. Today, I am older, more fragile, my weaknesses seem to be having more of a systemic effect on my body, and my energy levels have been depleted because I have perceived my life to be full of stress over the past year (stemming from the founding of the Dynamic Aging Program I teach at OLLI, and my unexpected need to quickly expand the program due to its success).

This latest physical blow of pulmonary embolism has shown me just how quickly I could die, and I now have a pretty good picture of how that could happen at any moment. I am scared, yet grateful. I am sad, yet also full of love for my wife, my students, my friends, and the world in general. I am anxious, yet increasingly accepting of my position. I am broken, yet I can already feel myself pulling the pieces back together again – more dedicated than ever to achieving my life’s purpose.

Since I am not experiencing any pain following the incident, I can already feel the growth process beginning, and it is telling me to let go of any control I am trying to create in my life – and instead “allow” the energy of a more powerful and beneficent force to flow through me. It is telling me to get back to the basics: physical exercise, meditation, and nutrition. It is telling me to show my wife how much I love her all the time. And, it is requiring that I be more mindful of everything that I do. My current mindset and actions must become less about being fearful of another attack, and more of a wake-up call to get back on purpose, to what is important, and to what gives me the most joy.

Bad is Good – But Only if it Doesn’t Kill You
There is nothing new about the fact that most of us need the occasional existential reality check in order to keep progressing with our development. In fact, that was the theme of my dissertation where I wrote about the transformational effects of surviving cancer. In my research, a large majority of long-term cancer survivors described their experience as both the worst and the best thing that ever happened to them. How could that be? How could something that is so devastating in the moment, and for months to follow, also be something that is good for us? Time helps, but how does one open their self up to the transformational change that is possible following the traumatic events in our lives? A better question – perhaps – is how can we open ourselves up to the transformational change we are always capable of achieving, regardless of the events we experience? In other words, how can we positively change without almost killing ourselves?

I know this is a very delicate piece of work. On the one hand, the entire world is now changing at a continuously escalating rate. Therefore, we must continuously change ourselves if we want to remain connected with what is going on in the world around us. In my case, I have also felt a growing need to simplify my life by moving out of our large house and into a smaller one (which we haven’t accomplished yet), consolidate monetary holdings and place them in the hands of a reliable local investment counselor, take care of the legal framework one must create as we get older (wills, living trusts, multiple power of attorneys, layers of insurance, etc.), and learn not to stress the small stuff – because there is already enough big stuff out there to stress about.

My work, or life’s purpose at this time, is the creation and growth of the Dynamic Aging Program I am teaching at OLLI. This would be a pure act of love and creativity for me, except that it is on top of everything else that is happening in my life – which is escalating at an escalating rate. Now I have new medical issues to consider, and an increasing proportion of my time must be spent getting back to the basics: exercise, nutrition, and meditation. I’m exhausted just thinking about it, but this much I am certain about.

For me, it all boils down to this final question: How can we continue to optimally develop along a psychological and spiritual path when we are constantly stressed out about all the increasing things we must do – just to keep from drowning?

Questions, Questions, Questions!
I know that all I have done is pose a series of questions without any real answers. I am clearly over the “edge” of my ability to do everything I want to do with my life, and I suspect there are a growing number of others out there who are also quickly approaching this edge. How could it be otherwise when the world and our bodies are changing so rapidly (oops, another question)? Yet, here I am telling my students and the world that engagement is the key to optimal aging, rather than conventional retirement. This might sound good on the surface, but how can we add such a large additional slice to our life – just as everything else is becoming out of control?

The fact is, we must find new meaning and purpose in our lives as we age, or else all life becomes is a futile quest for systemic maintenance. We could literally spend our entire lives exercising, meditating, researching the newest nutritional trends, and going from healer to healer looking for someone or something to ease our physical and emotional pain. We could then spend any remaining time trying to keep current with technological advancements, world events, and planetary consciousness – continuously adapting to these changes as their frequency increases. However, as important as these things are to our well-being, we as human beings must also have a social life, maintain and/or enhance our relationships, have fun once in a while, and be experiencing progress at something we find meaningful in our lives. These seem to be the variables we have the most control over – and it seems that how we socialize, who we socialize with, what we do for fun, and what we spend our time working at, will largely determine our overall quality of life as we get older.

This is an extremely important point I teach my students, but I don’t hear or read anyone else talking about it. Quite simply, to improve our quality of life we must also be experiencing forward progress in our lives – in spite of our aging bodies. This is the “progress principle” I teach my students, and without it most people experience a slow and steady cognitive decline – which combines with our inevitable physical decline, to increasingly reduce our quality of life. To experience this progress we must find our own unique meaning and purpose in life – something most of us have never had to do. But, how do we find this new meaning and purpose? I believe that for many of us, purpose can only be found experientially by engaging meaningfully with our environment, trying one thing after another, until one finds that feeling of alignment, contribution, happiness, and growth. But how do we find the time to do this in the world we now live in?

I don’t claim to know the answer to all the questions I have posed in this blog entry. It has only been a week since my pulmonary embolism, and I still get winded just climbing the stairs in my home. However, I do know the answer to most of these questions lies in mindfully balancing all of these increasing requirements in a manner that is optimal to me – which could be completely different than someone else.

For me, it seems there are some things we have to do, and other things we want to do. The things we have to do increase naturally as we age, and have become exacerbated by the escalating rate of change in our environment. However, this doesn’t mean we have to stop doing what we want to do. In fact, we can’t – unless you want to experience a slow and steady decline in your QOL. Instead, we must find a way to balance all of these things in a non-stressful manner. Stress is the enemy of the aging person, not all the things we have to do.

If you have some ideas about how to accomplish this, I would appreciate you dropping me a note – either by replying to this blog entry or sending me a personal message. I have my own ideas, but I believe we have now reached a point where all seniors must join together to share their experiences and learn from each other. Together, we can become greater than the sum of our individual identities, but only if we overcome our fears and open ourselves to others.

Love, Dudley